President Donald J. Trump should be more Sen. Rand Paul and the 2013 version of Trump and less Sen. John McCain and Hillary Clinton on foreign policy.
The president is facing a very difficult decision moving forward in Syria. The easy path is to escalate and push for more interventionism, because of the massive infrastructure in D.C. that pushes a president in favor of war. President Trump must stick to his campaign guns on the side of restraint and against nation building.
War should always be the last resort in conflict resolution. My former co-worker on the staff of Sen. Paul, Greg Archetto, used to say that every intervention should pass a three-part test:
- National Interest
- Military Objective
- Exit Strategy
A longterm Syrian intervention fails the first part of the test—there is no national interest in creating anarchy in Syria. It would be harmful to the United States if we ended up having to occupy the nation to then fight ISIS with ground troops. Toppling the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons may lead to Islamic extremist rule in Syria or American troops being placed in harm’s way—or both. Any of those outcomes are negative.
Nation building is not in the national interest of the United States.
If this is an example of President Trump engaging in a “one off” where he responded to a single chemical weapons attack by obliterating the air field where the attack originated, that act creates less heartburn with those who don’t want to march down the road to a new war. The missile strikes are an executive branch act that Congress has authority over because of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that delegates the declaration of war to Congress. Yet, as a one-off, then there will not be any need for follow up authorization from Congress.
Nobody disputes that the Syrian government’s chemical attacks were despicable, just as nobody disputes that ISIS has engaged in similarly despicable attacks in Syria and Iraq. And not many dispute that Syria is a mess with over half a million casualties and a massive exodus of Syrians from that nation. When you look at examples of the post-war situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, one can reasonably conclude that American longterm intervention will not end well. Libya and Egypt, the nations President Obama helped to break, provide two examples of intervention without occupation that went off the rails.
Remember when Donald Trump, in 2013, opposed the bombing of Syria under similar circumstances?
That Trump, 2013 Trump, was right.
Like Sen. Obama, who argued in 2007 to the Boston Globe that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” it seems the foreign policy establishment has convinced another president that inaction is not an option.
Supporters of war with (insert name of nation) are already attacking opponents of interventionism as “isolationists,” “paleo-conservatives” and members of the “Alt-Right.” Opposition to a new war is perfectly reasonable and consistent with an American consensus that a new longterm war is not in the best interests of the country.
Interventionists are using the missile strike as a pretext to call for more. Sen. John McCain called the missile attack the “right thing to do” but said we have “a long way to go.” Sen. Lindsey Graham praised Trump and argued that “he needs to do more to close the deal. There’s a new sheriff in town.” These voices have been wrong in the past and need to be ignored now.
This is a very important decision point for President Trump, and he needs to stay away from cheerleaders for war like Sens. McCain and Graham. A one-off hopefully sends a message to the Assad regime and will deter the Syrian government from future use of chemical weapons.
If President Trump morphs from an “America first” foreign policy to interventionism that would fit perfectly into a Hillary Clinton or John McCain Administration, then he should expect a large swath of his supporters to be despondent and to walk way from supporting him.
Brian Darling is a former counsel for Sen. Bob Smith, Sen. Mel Martinez and SeRand Paul. He is the author of a Heritage Foundation policy paper titled “The Filibuster Protects the Rights of All Senators and the American People.” Follow him on Twitter @BrianHDarling.